From actor to activist to author
M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell recounts tales from Hollywood, Rwanda, and death row in a new memoir
Farrell's book touches on his difficult early life in West Hollywood with his St. Paul-born parents, his stint in the Marines, a life-changing self-help program, numerous acting and producing anecdotes, and his work with organizations such as Human Rights Watch and CONCERN/America. City Pages spoke to Farrell by phone during the Ann Arbor stop on his book tour.
City Pages: You state in the book that following your tour in the Marines, you still lacked direction. But were there lessons you learned in the service that you've integrated into your life as an activist?
Mike Farrell: Well, you learn a lot in the service, and in the Marine Corps they imbed you with a lot of the lore of the Corps. But I think the primary lesson I learned was the dehumanization process people have to go through in order to do what you need to be able to do. I saw a black and white world that I found troubling. When I was stationed in Okinawa, I was told not to go into certain villages because there were Communists there. And it was to protect us, but it was also a biased way of looking at things, [which] I didn't appreciate.
One of the things I learned in the service was how to take care of yourself and there was a certain value to that. The rest of it was a little too much regimentation for me.
CP: Regarding the therapy-oriented self-help program "The House" in which you participated following your stint in the Marines, it seems like the love, respect, and attention you sought for yourself are also the needs of those whose causes you champion. Can you talk about how your experiences at The House?
MK: The lessons I learned there remain writ large. They've been engraved in my soul. Some of the lessons had not only to do with what they taught me about every human being wanting love, respect, and attention, and the problems people get into when they don't get that in their lives--it was the people from whom I was learning them. People who my father would have dismissed as detritus, just tossed away.
It's the issue of some people being beyond caring about because they have somehow crossed the line into unacceptable behavior, and that somehow that makes them less than human.
At the base of it all was the continued insistence that there is value here, whereas that was not the concern in the Marines, where they break you down to make you respond to a command. On some levels the dynamic was the same but the process, ultimately, was very different.
CP: In your travels around the world, it sounds like the trip to Rwanda was the most gut-wrenching.
MK: The Rwandan trip terrified me from a lot of perspectives... It was at once the most horrible experience I've ever had, and one of the most reaffirming experiences I've ever had, because of the fact that so many people survived [the 1994 civil war genocide] and so many of the survivors were able to, and willing to, reach out and, if not forgive--although some of them forgave--make the determination that they had to bridge the gap, and find a way to make their society come together and work again. But the experience itself, walking through the church in Ntarama was something that I will never forget. Seeing the bones of the people in the yard, and seeing the body parts carpeting the dirt floor of the chapel, it's like descending into hell. You just think nothing could be any worse than this.
I was so shaken by it that they got us back into this wagon that they were driving us around in, and when we got down the road from the church I said I've got to get out. I had to walk around, and breathe, and allow myself to experience what I've just seen. I did, and realized I was the only white man around in this village of people who didn't speak my language and were certainly curious about me, and soon gathered around me. Not all of them were happy about my being there.
At that point, it was not how can I help, but can I help? Is there any help? Is there any hope? How can we move beyond this? Seeing the physical evidence of what happened was so devastating that I couldn't sleep. I couldn't comprehend it, and it takes awhile to allow that to settle in, to allow yourself to revisit those images and re-connect, if you can, with the people that you met. I talked to everybody that I found there, black and white, people who were there to help and people who were there that experienced it, just to get a sense of How are you able to be sane and alive, and how can you smile after that? And yet they could and that, ultimately, gives me the greatest hope.
CP: Was there a particular incident during your travels where you felt you weren't going to get out of it alive?
MK: The death squads in El Salvador were horrifying. We knew from the bodies on the side of the road and the body dumps, that [getting killed] was a real possibility, although there was always this sense that having an American passport in your back pocket is, many times, a bridge to safety. On the other hand, there are those who simply don't recognize or honor that bridge, and I know too many people who have died as result of having assumed that they were safe when they weren't.
In Somalia, walking through these clinics--they were like mangers, bamboo structures where children were dying of starvation--because I had a white face, children would look up at me, or their mothers would look at me, and say, "Doctor, doctor, can you help?"
So, there are times when you just feel so bloody hopeless and helpless, and other times, as in Honduras, where there was a woman who said, "All of us have jobs to do, and perhaps your job is to be here and witness this, and go back and tell the American people about it."
CP: In writing about your work to abolish the death penalty, you introduce us to inmate Joe Giarratano, who, in 1979, woke up from a blackout to find his roommates murdered, and was sentenced to death following a quick trial. Do you have an update on his progress?
MK: It's an awful story. Joe is living, breathing proof that this system must be ended, and that it goes beyond the death penalty. It's the political calculation that goes along with all this stuff. Joe remains in prison, they've moved him from one "super-max" to a slightly less-intense "super-max," but it's the same thing. The treatment he's receiving now is largely because of his having survived death row. [Then-Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder had commuted Giarratano's sentence to life.] And that's, to me, one of those things that is inexcusable: these politicians and people in the system that are abusing their power. People who use their power over others are people I hold in contempt, and I want to be able to struggle with every time I get the chance.
CP: Do you think a Democratic Congress will make any difference in furthering your causes, or will it be more of the same?
MK: On some levels it's going to be more of the same. But I think on the fundamental level of the Iraq War, and some other real issues, I think it's going to be a different story. And part of that is because the Bush Administration and the neo-cons have driven us so far to the right that I think people now have begun to understand the danger of a one-party Neanderthal system, and what kind of damage it can do, not only to the people in this country, but to the image of the country abroad.
So, I'm hopeful. I try not to be cynical, I try to be optimistic. I think there is significant leadership available to the Democratic Party, if they have the courage to grab onto it.
CP: One M*A*S*H question: In the final scene of the final episode, was that actually you tearing down the hill on the motorcycle like a maniac, or was that a stunt driver?
MK: They wouldn't let me do it! I said Come on! You know I can do this and they said All you have to do is break your leg and then we are in serious trouble. I rode it up [to the helicopter pad], but they wouldn't let me ride it down. And when they shot that, if you watch it closely, the back wheel started to come loose, and that guy almost lost it. The director looked at me and said Ah huh. The M*A*S*H experience was a wonderful one for me, one I'll never forget, and will always cherish.
Mike Farrell will be reading from his new book on Thursday, April 5, 8:00 p.m., at Central Presbyterian Church, 500 Cedar St. in St. Paul, and Friday, April 6, 7:30 p.m., at Magers and Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Both events are free.